Director: Tomas Alfredson
Writer: Bridget O’Connor, Peter Straughan, John Le Carré (novel)
Cast: Gary Oldman, Tom Hardy, Benedict Cumberbatch
On the face of it, John Le Carré’s novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, makes for a very difficult adaptation. Set in the 1970s, it’s a complex, slow-burner of a spy thriller, with little action and a plot that hinges on subtle realisation rather than dramatic climax. The formula works perfectly in the novel and, actually, in the film itself. It is remarkably faithful in both plot and style. Tomas Alfredson, best known for his coming-of-age vampire drama Let the Right One In, was perhaps not the obvious choice to direct a big British spy film, but he is apparently a master at building an atmosphere in any environment. He meticulously recreates the shadowy world of Le Carré’s novel and uses the camera to instil that sense of conspiracy necessary for the film’s success.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy opens with Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) on an assignment in Budapest, designed to identify a mole believed to be operating at the very top of the intelligence service. It goes badly wrong; Prideaux is shot, assumed dead, and the identity of the mole remains in the dark. There are also repercussions for the intelligence service as Control (John Hurt) and George Smiley (Gary Oldman) are forced out of their jobs, and a new order, headed by Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), takes over, using the political capital acquired from their too-good-to-be-true source of Soviet intelligence, Operation Witchcraft. However, rumours of the mole persist, and Smiley is called out of retirement to discover its identity and the truth behind what happened in Belgrade.
After the opening sequence, the most conventional of the film, it becomes difficult to follow. Lots of characters are introduced, the pace is slow and nothing much happens for a while. It appears to be style over substance, relying on a strong aesthetic to keep you interested. Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy) is introduced at just the right moment and, from then on, it starts to reel you in. Tarr’s back story is superbly done, giving Oldman and Hardy an opportunity to play off against each other, and the retrospective action provides genuine intrigue and a welcome change of scene. Oldman is wonderful throughout, initially playing Smiley as a world-weary spy in retirement, but, like his character, really comes into his own when given something to get his teeth into. The plot gets closer, more personal, and it is then that he comes to life. He barely moves but quietly dominates every scene, an old master among young prodigies in more ways than one.
By the end, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is gripping. The multiple layers of the plot come together to clarify the overall picture, and the little details begin to make sense. There is no need to introduce any genuine action, as the nuanced drama becomes extremely effective, enhanced by the superb performances and Alfredson’s direction. It has been described as overly complicated, and perhaps it does help to have read the book, but its complexity is a virtue. Once it engages you, it is as intense as any genuine thriller.